June 04, 2007

Pitch-recognition program offers help to batters

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — The legendary baseball pitcher Cy Young once said that pitchers, like poets, are born, not made. Batters are another story.

Drawing on research techniques originally developed to study chess expertise, Peter J. Fadde has created teaching drills that, with a little practice, can transform a very good batter into an excellent hitter in no time at all — and he has the stats to prove it.

"It's no different than drilling in math," said Fadde, an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, who recently published an article on "Interactive Video Training of Perceptual Decision-Making in the Sport of Baseball" in the journal "Technology, Instruction, Cognition and Learning."

"At some point, you don't think, 'Three times four is 12.' It just is. That's what we're ultimately looking for. You see a certain thing and you know a certain thing from it."

For batters, the "certain thing" involves deciphering where a pitched ball is headed so they know whether, when and where in the strike zone to swing at it. Major-league batters make this decision in less than a quarter of a second — literally, the blink of an eye.

But a decision is a decision, even in such a short time frame, and that fact is key to understanding how Fadde came up with his drills.

"The approach comes from cognitive psychology and the study of the mechanisms of decision-making," he said.

"The leap is to say we can take decision-making, break it down into its component parts and make training out of it."

In this case, Fadde aimed to train batters to recognize what different pitches look like at the moment the ball begins rocketing toward them and to deduce from that where the ball is heading.

"Unless you recognize the type of pitch, you will probably go wrong on location, so we usually have batters work on recognizing type before location," Fadde said.

"But it doesn't mean anything to say that's a split-finger fastball unless that means something to you about where the ball winds up."

The ability to recognize a pitch has much more to do with picking up clues — from stance, hand position and such — than with sharp eyesight.

"It's a mental 'software' thing, not a vision 'hardware' thing," Fadde said.

Fadde, who in 2003 was at Purdue University, tried out his first pitch-recognition training program that year with the school's baseball team for two weeks during pre-season practice. Batters watched videotaped clips of easy, medium and hard versions of pitches thrown toward the camera. Easy clips showed about 150 milliseconds of ball flight—about one-third of the distance to the plate. Medium clips showed about 65 milliseconds of ball flight. The most difficult video clips cut to black immediately after the ball left the pitcher's hand, showing no ball flight. Starting with the easiest clips and moving on to the most difficult, batters would call out the type of pitch thrown, and Fadde would tell them whether they'd made the right call.

"The essential elements of the drill-and-practice instructional method are repetition, immediate feedback and progressive difficulty," Fadde said.

"The ballplayers would look at the zero ball-flight clips and say, 'I feel like I'm just guessing.' 'Yes,' I would say, 'but now you're "guessing" 90 percent right instead of 25 percent." Expert batters usually report that they "just guessed" at the pitches they hit, Fadde added.

Because Fadde had to run the videotape, give feedback and record research data all at the same time, he opted not to include a drill aimed at training batters to recognize pitch direction. Still, players who received the pitch recognition training improved their batting statistics in a test period of 18 games played before the Boilermakers' Big Ten conference schedule began. The batting average for the group of players who had not received pitch recognition training was .187; the trained group averaged .274. On-base percentage was .284 for the untrained group, .352 for the group with training. Slugging percentage was .248 for the untrained group and .361 for the trained players.

These official batting statistics will make sense to baseball players, coaches and fans. For those less familiar with the sporting life, Fadde said that an assessment tool researchers use to delve below the surface of their numbers revealed that the difference between trained and untrained players in batting average was statistically significant.

"Companies selling sports training products will often point to the performance gains of athletes who used the product, "Fadde said. "That doesn't mean that using the product caused the performance improvement. There are all kinds of other factors that influence performance. In this case, the research and analysis suggest that the training program did in fact cause the improvement in batting performance."

Since coming to SIUC, Fadde has with his graduate students developed a laptop computer version of the pitch-recognition training program and have switched from baseball to softball. The computer program, for which SIUC has a patent application pending, was used by several of the SIUC varsity softball players before the 2005 season. Although he intended mainly to improve the software rather than to produce scientific results, Fadde said the pitch-recognition training program proved to be extremely helpful for one young SIUC player.

"At the end of the season, she tied the team record for home runs and led the conference in runs batted in," he recalled. "Of course, you always have to be careful in saying that one thing caused the other."

Those interested in more information can contact Fadde via e-mail at fadde@siu.edu.